Setting yourself up for success and writing your own story
From a very early age, I always knew that I wanted to get into video games, from the first time I played Super Mario Bros™ on the original NES™. I remember the moment my brother and dad first brought it home and hooked it up - I couldn’t work out how they were controlling the TV! I was absolutely fascinated from that point on. Another favourite gaming memory was the first time I played Crash Bandicoot™ because it was then that I slowly started to realize that someone’s job is to make this, so why not mine?
Obviously, you don’t really make proper career decisions age 11! But the passion and interest for these virtual worlds never left me. Now, after 15 years in the industry, I wanted to share my career story and some of the most important lessons I’ve learned to help you start or accelerate your own game dev story.
My Gamedev Journey
My entry to an Undergraduate course in Computer Game Design at Teesside was in-part secured by the fact that I’d already been dabbling in 3D modelling. After completing my subsequent Masters degree I got my first job as a graduate designer at Frontier in Cambridge working on The Outsider™.
My next move was to Sony Cambridge, which later became Guerrilla Cambridge, where I was lucky to be working on Killzone Mercenary™ and as well as Killzone Shadow Fall™ and its multiplayer DLC, and RIGS: Mechanized Combat League™ for the PS® VR.
It was whilst I was at Frontier, though, that the seeds were planted for the career move I would make next. We had a PlayStation®3 in the studio, I’d been playing Uncharted 2: Among Thieves™ shortly after its release and it just… blew me away. I knew this was the kind of game I’d love to work on.
“If I don’t try it, I’ll never achieve it.”
If it wasn’t for a friend of mine moving to the US to join Naughty Dog at that time, it never would have felt real to me that this could be an attainable path for Brits. It gave me so much drive to know I could potentially do the same. I thought, if I don’t try it, I’ll never achieve it. I was only 2 years into my career at this point however, so knew I needed to up my game.
I undertook hours of consistent learning, immersing myself in industry talks and articles, and after 6 years into my career I felt confident enough that I could contribute learnings of my own to the industry. I started writing my own articles, gave talks at universities and spoke at events like GDC Europe, slowly building a bit of a knowledge-sharing portfolio over time. Thanks to this portfolio and taking the time to refine my skills, in the Spring of 2017, I found myself in Santa Monica, California, in week six of pre-production for The Last of Us™ Part II.
I got my first glimpse of the project on the first day in office; my jet-lagged eyes widening when I saw early prototype updates – I knew this was going to be incredible! My first 6 months alone were absolutely packed with learnings, this studio being absolutely standard-setting in terms of game design. I was on the project from start to finish and it was truly an amazing experience.
After a fantastic 4 and a half years at Naughty Dog, the rise in Covid-19 was taking hold on a global stage and it was time to go back home for family commitments. One of my favorite things about the studio was its true passion and positive, can-do culture, but I’d been struggling to find that in my interviews as I searched for my next career move. Until I spoke with Firesprite. I was really inspired by their goal to redefine the narrative adventure genre, and it was really inspiring how passionate and ambitious the team were, so I took a role with them and, well, the rest is history! I’ve been at Firesprite for over 2 years now and we’re doing some really exciting cool stuff - that I can’t talk about! - it’s an exciting challenging, to redefine a genre, and we’re lucky enough to be doing so with some incredible talent and fantastic teams.
Building your Knowledge-Sharing ‘Portfolio’
Learning and talking at industry events was not only something I truly enjoyed, but also an integral part of my career growth. I spent time identifying areas that other people hadn’t really been talking about which I could explore. They say if you want to master something, teach it, so I gathered the confidence to promote those conversations within the industry by writing my own articles and developing my own talks around the areas I’d identified.
Building on my existing knowledge in areas I’d identified as under-served; I talked about subverting player expectations in single player games, identifying games which did it well and using those examples to build a bit of a rule set for success. The thing that still excites me the most about game design is finding creative ways to tell the intended story through gameplay opportunities, embedding narrative through actions you take, so players feel like they are part of the story, not just watching it. At the time there was barely any information out there on this, not even for film, let alone gaming. It was additional work, and all in my own time, but it did really help set me up for success in my field.
This work not only helped my secure my role at Naughty Dog years later, but even helped me when working on The Last of Us™ Part II. This is spoilers, but there is a section where the player gets ambushed at a workbench. The brief for the level was to accentuate Ellie’s loneliness, and I set out to do that through the game mechanics themselves rather than just a cut-scene. The player is immersed in a moment which emphasizes that there is no-one there to watch their back. After the success of that moment, this, in-turn, became another piece of my knowledge-sharing portfolio, where I was able to showcase the research, the workings and my findings.
Career Lessons in: Design
What makes a good designer great? What do I look for when hiring a designer? Well, one of the key things I think helps a designer really hone their craft is being able to look at the game as if they were a first-time player, every time. It takes a lot of training to be able to remove yourself from something you’re so immersed in and see it with hypothetical fresh eyes. However, being able to put aside the fact that you know what’s coming up and adopt the lens of a first-time player will allow you to consistently critique your own work and improve it constantly.
Collaboration is another skill I’d recommend any designer refines. Design is a bit of a center point, bringing all the departments together and accounting for them all when creating player experience. That means being able to collaboratively work with all disciplines, to take their input, ideas and their knowledge and know how that will affect the way you craft the experience. It’s not design by committee, or just taking everyone’s ideas and putting them all together; it’s being able to listen to the other departments, interpret their intention, and understand what is best for the overall experience and pacing of the game.
This brings me onto another key design skill; being able to expound feedback. For example, when observing user testing, understanding what issue a player is trying to overcome and whether the real fix required is not the particular obstacle they’re stuck on, but the fact that they haven’t been taught properly to know what they’re expected to do in that area, and so actually the solution is to teach them better earlier. It’s being able to understand holistically how players experience the game and know how to craft the best experience with them by understanding the real issues behind any feedback.
Overall, my main design mantra is ‘fail faster’. That’s not to say you should intentionally fail, what it really means is, show your work early so that you can get feedback early, allowing you enough time to pivot quickly. Spending too much time on perfecting something which turns out to be fundamentally wrong, is time wasted, but time spent on an outline to test and get feedback on early enables us to stay agile and develop with confidence. A finalized whole level in poor shape is much more difficult to rectify and adjust than a rough format. Be comfortable to show your work in an early state and be prepared to completely remake it if needed; it’s not wasted work because you’ll have learned from the previous iteration how to make your work even better!
Finally, knowing that great ideas can come from anywhere. I’ve found it so useful to talk to anyone in the studio, regardless of their discipline, anyone, grab whoever will listen to you! If you’re excited about your idea, get feedback. Take the opportunity to try and sell it, and if you can’t sell it then you need to be OK with allowing yourself to adjust the idea then take more feedback on board.
Career Lessons in: Leadership
Prior to achieving my first Director role I undertook a course from Harvard Business School on leadership, and one of my key leadership takeaways was when they asked “what do you stand for as a manager or director?”, so I created my own personal pillars of what I stand for, and reference them every day. This is something I’d recommend any team lead asks themselves and reflects on.
I developed my own three rules, and these are rules I live by now as a team leader in my role at Firesprite. I stand for integrity, transparency, and positivity.
I very deliberately chose integrity over honesty because I feel like integrity requires one step further. For example, not just being able to say ‘yes I agree we should do it this way’ but actually following through on that. That’s what I would want from a leader, so that’s what I strive to deliver for my team.
Transparency, of course, is at times dependent on what is acceptable to share and with who, but, largely speaking, when I’ve experienced a team develop a sense of things having been kept from people, it can damage trust. It’s important to me that my team feel valued, and that we have trust. Even if something isn’t going well, I’d rather be transparent and discuss how we’re going to mitigate it.
That brings us onto positivity. At Naughty Dog, I experienced the real can-do positive attitude which permeates through American culture. Happier people feel valued, secure and motivated to do their best. Having been in that atmosphere and seeing how uplifting it can be, I always strive to bring positivity to a team dynamic to facilitate the happiest, most creative and motivated environment I can.
I hope some of the key lessons I’ve learned throughout my own career might help you develop your own. Whether you’re just starting a career in game design, accelerating to a lead position, chasing a dream role, or pioneering an entire genre, remember to never stop learning and following your passion. Don’t be afraid to write your own story because, if you don’t try it, you’ll never achieve it.